Family Business

Fred Halliday writes about Saudi Arabia

Among the less visible casualties of the recent Aitken libel case was the possibility of improving the quality of discussion about Saudi Arabia, an anomalous state with which, whatever a humanrights oriented Government may intend, Britain will continue to have close relations for many years. The standard negative images of the Kingdom were easy enough to find in the Aitken saga, and have been amply reinforced by coverage of the trial of two expatriate British nurses accused of murdering a colleague. The stereotypes of Saudi Arabia may be accurate, but they are hardly peculiar to that country. On the side of Aitken and his associates there is, of course, the opposite tendency, an oleaginous deference and a habit of euphemism, backed by widespread Saudi influence in the West’s media, and by an almost total information blackout on the country – Western journalists wait for months to get visas to enter Saudi Arabia.

Middle East press coverage of the Aitken trial shows the extent to which the Arab world, too, is split into two camps. The Saudifunded newspapers, al-Sharq al-Awsat and al-Hayat, both published in London, carried stonewalling accounts of the trial. Aitken had had dealings with ‘Arab businessmen’: there was no mention of Prince Muhammad bin Fahd, Governor of the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia, and Aitken’s main associate, whom he allegedly met on his fateful Paris trip. The trial was, however, given prominent coverage in al-Quds al-Arabi, a daily also published in London and popular among those opposed to Saudi Arabia in Yemen Qatar, among Palestinians and, more recently, in Syria. On 24 June it ran the story of Aitken interfering with witnesses alongside the Guardian cartoon by Austin showing two Gulf Arabs holding a sword marked ‘Truth’, and the caption, ‘They’re for Sale from the British.’ Between such extremes there is little room for informed discussion of Saudi Arabia. A recent visit did little to dispel my own sense of unease – one which is shared, it would seem, by many inhabitants of the Kingdom itself.

This is not a country where it’s easy to come by reliable information. There are no firm statistics on the most important economic indicators, oil output or revenue. Few independent observers believe the official population figure of around 15 million. No one seems to know how many Saudi princes there are, each entitled to a khususia, or annual allowance of hundreds of thousands of dollars, and to perks, including free air travel. Currently, the rulers, and owners, of the Kingdom give the impression of having some, short-term, reasons for feeling a little more at ease. The price of oil (which costs the locals 50p a gallon) rose in late 1996 by 35 per cent, adding an estimated $12 billion to an income from oil of around $42 billion. In the tense context of the Gulf, the two main sources of unease, Iraq and Iran, appear to be in defensive mood. Within the country, the salafiin, the conservative and in some ways fundamentalist critics of the regime, have been less in evidence, as repression, exile and money take their toll. The men ‘with long beards and short thaub (Arab dress)’ are, for the moment, in retreat.

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